Book Review: The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children From Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience

Review by David Yarian, Ph.D.

The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children From Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience by Martin SeligmanThe Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children From Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience
Martin Seligman

Marty Seligman "invented" the sub-field of Positive Psychology, which looks to build strengths, resilience and thriving in people -- rather than only attempting to ameliorate mental problems. It is an approach whose keystone is optimism -- the belief that, however I might feel right now, there is a larger truth about myself that is positive.

Dr. Seligman begins The Optimistic Child with a touching story about how, during the summer of his tenth year, two of his baseball teammates whom he idolized were stricken with polio. The next year the Salk vaccine came out and all children were immunized against polio -- and he lost no more friends to the terrible disease.

Some thirty years later he met Dr. Jonas Salk and had a paradigm-shifting conversation with him. As Seligman described his research efforts (which had yielded the understanding of depression as learned helplessness) and his efforts to develop preventive approaches, Salk made a powerful observation.

"If I were a young scientist today, I would still do immunization. But instead of immunizing kids physically, I'd do it your way. I'd immunize them psychologically."

This phrase captured Seligman's desire to find effective psychological treatments to prevent mental disorders in later life by building strengths and resources within the child. In this book he describes his approach to psychologically immunizing children against depression by teaching them the skills of optimism.

Seligman's early research focused on "learned helplessness". He observed, both in animals and in people, that when there are no options for escaping an aversive situation, the research subjects exhibited all the symptoms of depression: listlessness, lack of energy, agitation, depressed mood. In contrast, he found that when his subjects were taught new ways to respond to the same aversive situations, they responded differently -- with energy and optimism as they sought to master the situation with the new tools.

An early chapter in this book describes in sobering detail the epidemic of depression which has developed over the last century, with at least a ten-fold increase in the incidence of serious depression (and with earlier onset). He also points out that the approach of trying to build kids' self-esteem has essentially failed to stem this tide of depression.

This book is a powerful tool for parents and teachers who wish to equip their children with skills and resources to deal with the challenges of living which they will face. Whether dealing with success or with failure, winning or losing, gain or loss, there are large differences in an optimistic approach vs. a pessimistic approach. Optimism skills provide the child with psychological immunization to depression.

What is optimism? Viewing the world always through rose-colored glasses? Seligman offers a more nuanced and practical approach. "The basis of optimism," he says, "does not lie in positive phrases or images of victory, but in the way you think about causes." Since bad things do happen to all of us, what is important is learning how to respond to these events.

Each of us has an "explanatory style" which characterizes how we conceptualize what is happening to us (and what the consequences are likely to be). Children who are most at risk for depression believe the causes of the bad things that happen to them are permanent, and will recur. More optimistic children believe that the causes of bad events are temporary. For example, notice the difference between these two interpretations of the same difficult event: "No one will ever want to be friends with me at school;" vs. "It takes time to find a new best friend when you move to a new school." The first, pessimistic interpretation sees the bad event as permanent, the second, more optimistic view, sees it as temporary.

Good events may likewise be interpreted differently: "The only reason I won the spelling bee is because I practiced hard this time;" vs. "I won because I'm a hard worker and I study my lessons." The pessimist child views good events as temporary or due to luck while the optimistic child sees the permanent connection between his or her efforts and the positive outcome.

Pessimists and optimists differ, as well, as to whether they interpret bad and good events as indicating something specific or something global. "Teachers are unfair" is a global (and pessimistic) interpretation of a bad event; "Mrs. Carmine is unfair" is a specific (and more optimistic) interpretation of the same experience.

With good events, as you might imagine, the positions are reversed, with optimistic children viewing good events as more global, and pessimistic children viewing them as more specific: "Erica invited me to her party because I'm popular;" vs. "Erica invited me to her party because she likes me."

Seligman believes that optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles are learned in childhood and, without intervention, persist into adulthood. He strongly encourages parents to interact with their child in ways that help them take realistic responsibility for their actions, and to tie any criticism to the problematic behavior rather to the child himself. For example, there is a real difference between these two responses to the same behavior: "Tammy, what's wrong with you? You are always such a monster!" vs. "Tammy, you are really misbehaving today. I don't like it at all." Or: "You are a bad boy;" vs. "You tease your sister too much." The first responses in each pair criticize the child in a global (and permanent) way, while the second responses criticize the behavior.

The last half of the book is a detailed program -- whose effectiveness has been proven in research studies -- to help parents teach optimism skills to their children. Checklists help parents measure the optimism of their child, to establish a baseline before beginning the program. Subsequent chapters teach parents how to change their child's automatic pessimism and their pessimistic explanatory style, how to dispute their own pessimism and decatastrophize their predictions about the future, and how to boost social skills.

It's hard to praise this self help book highly enough! It is a powerful tool to help children and their parents and teachers build internal skills and resources to deal with inevitable life challenges. This is a book every parent should read -- and use!